was 1942. Tractors were about to outnumber horses on American
farms. Chemical weed-killers and bug sprays were being promoted
as the wave of the future. Organic farming and publishing pioneer
J.I. Rodale was just kicking around the idea of starting a magazine
for organic farmers. And wannabe organic farmers Paul and Betty
Keene were farming and teaching for $5 a week, plus room and board,
as they gained experience and searched for land to start their own
“J.I. told me he was thinking about starting up a little
magazine called Organic Farming and Gardening. He asked me if I
wanted to become the assistant editor. I laughed and said, ‘No
sir, I think I’d rather farm,'” Paul Keene recalled
But that’s not all Paul did. With his wife, Betty, he founded
Walnut Acres, the farm and direct-marketing company that first made
natural foods available through the mail. Walnut Acres grew into
a $10 million-a-year business. And the Keene family farm in Penns
Creek, Pennsylvania, became a Mecca for the organic faithful from
throughout the United States and many foreign countries. The Walnut
Acres catalog, with a circulation of more than 40,000, was more
popular than many magazines in its heyday.
Paul Keene passed away on April 23 of this year. He was 94, and
is survived by a sister, three daughters, six grandchildren and
eight great-grandchildren, but his legacy lives on throughout his
native Pennsylvania, the United States and the world.
In 1954, Paul helped found the Pennsylvania chapter of the Natural
Foods Associates. He and Betty created the Walnut Acres Foundation
in 1964, establishing an orphanage in southern India where they
had been teachers in the 1930s. Paul helped found the Pennsylvania
Association for Sustainable Agriculture in 1993. With organic foods
already solidly established as a multi-billion-a-year industry,
the Organic Trade Association honored Paul with its Organic Leadership
Award in 1998.
How It All Began
Paul earned a master’s in mathematics from Yale and went
to India in 1938 to teach for two years. That’s where he was
befriended by Mohandas K. Gandhi. He studied at Gandhi’s village
training school and was inspired by the work of organic farming
pioneer Sir Albert Howard and the Indian independence movement.
Paul also fell in love with Enid Betty Morgan, a fellow teacher
and the daughter of missionary parents.
He and Betty were married and returned to the United States in
1940, but not to teach. They wanted to farm!
“My work seemed somehow flat and empty. An unreality about
it gnawed at my spirit. Had I become too separated from life at
the roots?” Paul wrote years later. “Whenever I should
have been working on a doctoral thesis, before my eyes swam visions
of fertile fields and growing crops, of barns and animals and small,
tender, living things. My heart belonged now, in a way both exciting
and calming, to another world, at the doorway of which I stood awestruck.”
And so in 1946, the Keenes borrowed $5,000, bought 100 acres in
central Pennsylvania and began farming “on a song and a prayer,”
as The New Farm put it in an article in 1979.
“We moved there -- two children, two parents, Betty’s
elderly missionary father, a team of horses, our dog Lassie, and
an old car,” Paul wrote in his 1988 book Fear
Not To Sow Because of the Birds. The book is a collection of
the homey columns Paul wrote for the Walnut Acres catalog from 1949
through 1986. (The book’s title comes from an inscription
Keene found on an old tombstone. He adopted it as the motto for
Walnut Acres, saying that he always “tried to sow enough for
birds and people, and then to move through our days trustingly.”)
“Never was a new-born babe more beautiful to a relieved mother
than was Walnut Acres to us as we rattled proudly up the winding
lane on that bright March moving day so long ago. Glory was everywhere.
The tin roofs are rusted through in spots? Set buckets under the
drips until we find time to patch the holes. The house and barn
haven’t been painted for 20 years, the windows are falling
out? Ah, but the wood is sound -- and just paste paper over the
holes for now. The place has no plumbing, no bathroom, no telephone,
no furnace -- we must heat with a wood-burning stove? That’s
all right. Isn’t it great to pioneer? We must pay off the
mortgage with that one team of horses, plus an old plow and an old
harrow -- and live besides? Tut, tut -- we’ve lived on nothing
before; we wouldn’t know how to live otherwise. Oh, the wonder
of it all. We had a house and barn and outbuildings and a hundred
acres. Did you hear? One hundred acres!”
The Keene’s first harvest from six old apple trees was maybe
15 bushels of fruit. Using a huge iron kettle over an open fire,
they cooked the apples down to 100 quarts of apple butter. Selling
for $1 a quart, the apple butter helped the young family survive
its first winter at Walnut Acres. The rest, as they say, is history.
After Betty’s death in 1987, Paul’s own health began
to decline. Other family members took over management of Walnut
Acres, which was finally sold in 2000. Walnut Acres now exists only
as a registered trademark of the Hain Celestial Group, Inc.
“A surprised observer, I have been swept along by life as
in a miraculous stream,” Paul wrote in summing up his life.
“I have found that answers do not come by concentrating on
one’s own desires or fancied wants or needs. Somehow, by seeking
out the larger framework, as Gandhi did, one rises here and there
above the choking limits of self into a freer, fresher atmosphere,
to where one simply sees farther, through an expanded, more beautiful
Maybe that’s why Paul always sowed more than enough for the
birds -- and for humanity. It’s a rich legacy that’s
likely to continue yielding abundant harvests for generations to
come, both through the many new farmers he inspired and the countless
cooks and consumers he helped educate about the value of fresh,
local and organic foods.
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